A COCKTAIL of fable, farce and lyricism, shot through with sobering tragedy, this is the third novel from an outstandingly gifted writer.
The deeply-flawed Cardinal Guzman of the title instigates a spiritual crusade to restate the respectable materialist values of his Church in a mythical South American country gone astray. He then forgets it, in order to get on with a nervous breakdown.
Alas, his choice of crusade leader, Mgr Rechin Anquilar, proves to be the ecclesiastical equivalent of Darth Vader. Backed by a band of opportunist thugs he moves from town to town putting down heresy with increasingly bloody zeal.
After a fearsome catalogue of rape, pillage and terror, he meets his match in the resourceful inhabitants of Cochedebajo: an enchanted world whose eccentric citizens live cheek by jowl with a burgeoning population of pet jaguars, reanimated conquistadores, medicine men and spirits, a false priest who levitates during sermons, and a Kalashnikovwielding female revolutionary. This riveting story draws much of its power from today's real-life headlines. While the country is in thrall to drug barons, its absentee president prefers fancy-dress sex sessions to the business of government. The capital's streets and sewers are populated by abandoned children, at the mercy of grenade-lobbing vigilantes.
And the corrupting lust for absolute power over people's souls is presented as something with which the Church has been obsessed throughout history. Official sanction for burning heretics is, for example, traced back to the writings of St Thomas Aquinas.
The book, then, has very serious things to say about the mind-closing evils of misguided certainty. In particular it condemns religious dogmatism, seeing it as leading inevitably to terrible abuses. What it offers instead, however, is magical jaguars and reanimated conquistadores: hardly proof against the real-life evils it chronicles.
It is probably too much to expect a novel to answer questions as well as ask them. Whatever you might make of his theology, Mr de Bemieres writes superbly. This is a breathtaking read: moving, and hilarious.
Terry 0 'Sullivan lectures at Trinity and All Saints' College, Leeds.